Originally published June 2006
Just like you I understand that our connection to music comes from multiple angles: emotional, analytical, as a student, as a teacher, as a critic or just casually. Moreover irrespective of how we are connecting we can easily tell when we like something or we don’t Neither you nor I need any sort of training for that to occur. Note the emphasis on the word ‘like’. It conveniently bypasses the tricky aspects of ‘accuracy.’ Let’s keep it like that for now.
Years back my wife shouted from the other room to “stop fiddling about and just – for once – play the damn track in full Howard; the whole track or turn it off!.”
I told her what I was doing.
I was comparing the analogue stereo input on my Benchmark DAC to that of my LFD LS3 Linestage. No big deal, I thought. It’s what I do – correct? I compare stuff so as to produce effective demonstrations so that clients can make their minds up quickly and confidently. From her perspective though, the first five minutes of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Cotton Avenue’ time after time must have been, well, irksome I guess. Meanwhile, be VERY careful at 1:44 if you value your bass drivers. Anyway ...
Sensing defeat I invited her to get involved. I asked her to tell me whether Benchmark or LFD sounded better. I didn’t define better. I'm still not sure what is meant by better. I guess it means which option we like more. She was a self-described tone deaf who viewed music as useful but not in the fanatical way I did, and still do incidentally.
She said LFD LS3 was dramatically better on that track. She used the terms “richer,” “more alive,” “more depth,” “less bright,” and “sounds of individual instruments are clear.” Trust me, she’s never read a hi-fi magazine. What?
No, she’d never read a hi fi magazine but she knew what she liked.
I'm certain it was because despite her irritation and scepticism she wasn’t trying – by which I mean she was relaxed about the process because in her mind there was no process at all. Her analytical mind was switched off and her emotional connection switched on. I very much doubt this was a conscious act.
Some of you might have spotted the contusion between, or conflation of the two words ‘better’ and ‘like’. She was both uninterested and disinterested in the distinction and yet her involvement was invaluable. A debate (probably fruitless) re the differences illuminated by those two words is irrelevant here other than to say that I had previously formed the same opinion re the two models as she has.
Back in 1976
and for a few years after that when put on the spot to evaluate something my immediate reaction was one of anxiety. I become guarded as it felt like I was on trial. Nowadays I'm very confident because of many years of earning my living this way. Confident but not I hope complacent. I try to avoid arrogance. It’s taken me years to learn how to relax under this stress and turn on my emotional “engine” while marginalising the objective side of evaluation.
Clients though, they don’t have this wealth of experience. They are manipulated by magazine writers, intimidated by the forum know-alls bullies who can tell the difference between a Steinway piano and Bosendorfer at 1.7km AND tell all of us which one is sonically ‘better’ – and more. Better? What do they mean ‘better’? They are both state-of-the-art pianos.
Let’s be charitable; they just don’t know the difference between ‘better’ and ‘like’.